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7/11/2014
06:00 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself

Could you sit still doing nothing for 15 minutes? I bet you can't.

Do you know those stories about animals that get caught in a trap and chew a leg off rather than stay there? According to a recent study, people feel the same way about just sitting in a room, even their own rooms, and would literally rather hurt themselves than be subjected to the experience for even 15 minutes. If being in our own heads is a trap, there are profound social implications.

The study, conducted at the University of Virginia, asked adults ranging in age from 18 to 77 to sit in a laboratory room alone -- with no music, book, phone, or other distraction, just their own thoughts -- for a mere six to fifteen minutes. Most people said they didn't enjoy the downtime. They found that their minds wandered and that it was hard to concentrate.

Thinking that it had to do with the laboratory environment, the researchers asked people to repeat the study in a place more conducive to relaxation, their own homes. The results were the same, with most participants saying they didn't like the experience and a third admitting to cheating.

Here's a video of one of the study participants:

It's easy to call the people in this study big babies, but they aren't outliers. There's a reason jail is considered a punishment rather than a vacation. You're cut off from the normal activity of society and left with your own thoughts.

But it's the next phase of the study that's really frightening. The researchers subjected 18 men and 24 women to a mild electric shock. All the men and women agreed that they'd rather not experience the shock again and, according to the researchers, would "pay to make sure it didn't happen again." They then asked those same people to spend 15 minutes in a room with nothing to occupy them except a button that would administer the same electric shock they had already experienced.

Some 75% of the men and 25% of the women actually pressed the button at least once, shocking themselves on purpose. They couldn't sit there for 15 minutes alone with their thoughts, so they broke things up by hurting themselves.

You might be inclined to chalk this reaction up to smartphone or TV addiction, but the researchers think it's more than that. Study lead Timothy Wilson said: "The mind is designed to engage with the world. Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world."

I think there's also a set of social norms at work here. We're trained to be active and social. Doing nothing is punished in our society in a number of ways. Watch what happens when a set of students participates in an experiment of doing nothing on the campus of Georgia Southern.

As the video shows, people got downright hostile to the students for simply breaking the social norm and standing still. They were yelled at and confronted. The people confronting the abnormal behavior felt threatened, and we all know the social consequences of breaking social norms.

Being alone and doing nothing becomes uncomfortable even if no one sees us. That's why when we're home we'd rather waste hours and hours watching YouTube or TV than sit quietly with our thoughts. Watch this time lapse of a person who claims he spent all day at home doing nothing:

As you can see, he didn't do "nothing." What he should have indicated is that he did nothing important. He spent 16 hours constantly going from one entertainment option to another without ever doing anything of consequence. Imagine if he actually sat there and really did nothing.

One of the places this issue has come up recently is on airline flights. The recent policy change to let passengers use electronic equipment at altitudes of under 10,000 feet has been met with a combination of joy and derision. People have been using their devices as a way to escape their own thoughts. People would feel stranger sitting quietly looking out the window than they would looking at their phones. The phone protects them from social deviance. This is what happens if they don’t have their phones:

Let's go back to the prison example because this is where it gets frightening. Imagine a prisoner in solitary confinement, which in most US prisons means 20 or more hours a day alone in a room with little or nothing to separate you from your thoughts. Even when out of their cells, these inmates are kept away from other people and denied access to education or any other distracting activity.

It's no wonder then that prisoners in solitary confinement have a high rate of mental illness and recidivism. More than 25,000 prisoners per year in New York State alone go from solitary confinement directly back to the outside world.

If most of us can't handle our own head for six to fifteen minutes, how do we expect prisoners to do it for days and months on end? If we would prefer to hurt ourselves rather than to sit with no distractions, imagine how much prisoners would like to hurt themselves or others after a few days of solitary. Clearly, this is a form of punishment, but if you expect someone to come out of solitary having "learned his lesson," you need to take this study into account.

Every person isn't affected by quiet the same way. Some of us crave it. Some of us enjoy it spontaneously but can't deal with it while it's enforced. What seems like a simple study that pokes fun at people for not being able to sit still has relevance for how we deal with imprisonment, how we help the aging or disabled who are confined to their homes, and how we view social settings such as the airplane or library, where behavioral norms are different from our standard day.

Before you make fun of the study participants, try sitting in a room for 15 minutes without anything to distract you. Report the results here. Did the experience give you a different perspective on some of the issues broached above? Could you handle "the hole?" Do you think that people who like (or at least can handle) the quiet are different in some way? Are they smarter or more creative, or less so? Comment below.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 8:06:32 AM
Pain or nothing
All I can say is wow.  I know that attention spans have been shrinking for some time but it's hard to imagine not being able to be still for 15 minutes and enjoy it.  How do these people sleep at night?  How do they work through complex problems?  Do they daydream?  Down time is one of my most prized opportunities.  I love a few minutes alone in my head to work things out so this is all very interesting to me.  I can't imagine being so bored that shocking myself sounds like a better alternative.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:26:03 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@SaneIT- I assume they drink themselves into a stupor and shoot the lights out like Elvis used to do. :)

No, i have no idea. I have no problem either. It is so tempting to make fun of these people until you realize it is MOST people.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2014 | 2:32:27 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
No -- it was most men, according to the study. 75% of men pushed the button, while only 25% of women did so. It wasn't most people who pushed the electric-shock button! Not sure whether that says, on average, women can handle alone time better or whether women are more sensible about avoiding pain... Personally, I know nothing would have induced me to press a button that would zap me! And, as a full-time employee/mom/wife, I LOVE quiet, alone time!
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:44:31 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@Alison- Fair enough. Though i still think it has societal implications because they are half the people in the world. And also because even if the women didn't injure themselves, they still hated being alone.

I'm starting to wonder exactly what the qualities of someone who is willing to spend time alone with their thoughts is. Clearly, the community here is disbelieving and claiming they can handle the time. What is different about us? Are we smarter? More creative? Trained a certain way? Is it random luck? Do people who have trouble being alone with their thoughts avoid reading stuff like this? None of the above?
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2014 | 3:17:45 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
When I first read this study I found the results pretty odd and reading everyone's reactions, it seems even odder. I would like to know more about the participants, that's for sure, as well as where they sat for those 15 minutes. This study raises more questions than it answers, to be honest! Everyone is so crazed, between work and home, that having the luxury of 15 minutes to veg out and sit idly sounds deliriously wonderful.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:37:11 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@Alison- They were asked to do this both in a lab environment and at home. And at home they didn't do any better. 

One wonders if we haben't gotten so busy we don't know how to not be. I also wish we had run this experiment 50 years ago to see if there was a difference.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2014 | 4:14:45 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
Does the study specify how significant the shock was and whether its severity (or lack of it) was accurately conveyed? If it were no more than the static electricity jolt from taking off a sweater in winter, then the suggestion that harm is preferable to boredom is just wrong. If it were like being hit with a taser that's another thing -- and I'd bet far fewer people would try that out of boredom.

15 minutes soulds like a nice nap.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 6:13:45 PM
Re: Pain or nothing
@Thomas- They can't really specify because everyone's pain tolerance is different. But the way the study descirbes it, everyone was asked to do it once. They all agreed it hurt. And they all agreed that they didn't want to experience it again. And they all agreed that if they could, they would pay to avoid a similar shock in the future.

So, you know, we're talking significant enough no one would have volunteered for it before they were asked to sit there.
willjordan
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willjordan,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 9:42:45 AM
Meditation
I don't have any trouble with 15 to 30 minutes of meditation, which some people would consider doing nothing. But then, my attention span can include attention to my thoughts and my heartbeat and breathing.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 10:02:43 AM
Re: Meditation
>> try sitting in a room for 15 minutes without anything to distract you. Report the results here. Did the experience give you a different perspective on some of the issues broached above? Could you handle "the hole?"

Yep. No problem. If one is trained to meditate, then those 15 minutes are a snap. I know folks who can sit all day in silent meditation. I'm not religious, or follow any religion. The issue is getting myself to meditate! I'd rather watch TV. But, since you gave me 15 lovely minutes, I took them for silent meditation. Five years ago it would not have been as easy. But, you can change that with instruction and practice.

>> Being alone and doing nothing becomes uncomfortable even if no one sees us. That's why when we're home we'd rather waste hours and hours watching YouTube or TV than sit quietly with our thoughts.

We are all over stimulated by life, and most of us have not been taught how do dial it down through meditation or silent prayer, sadly.

Happy Geekend, @dave
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:32:21 PM
Re: Meditation
@jastro- I'll admit that one of the reasons I hate yoga classes is the number of them that make me sit quietly in a room full of people. I have no problem  sitting quietly alone. But I keep wondering to myself why I've decided to leave my house to exercise, and now I'm sitting around with a bunch of strangers doing nothing.

So clearly me and mediation don't get along. Or at least me and social norms don't. So I get this to some degree. I'm just said people can't let it go when they're home.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 2:58:53 PM
Re: Meditation
Not yoga! I hate yoga (sorry). Meditation can be learned/taught in meditation classes locally, or in certain religious meetings. I had a great meditation teacher and we had  a great group of people which created a wonderful spirtual dynamic (I know, I'm losing you @dave). But yoga...no yoga for me.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:01:55 PM
Re: Meditation
@jastro- Yes, you lost me, but it isn't all about me. Well yes, it is all about me. But not everyone else realizes it. :)
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/11/2014 | 3:03:28 PM
Re: Meditation
made me laugh, @dave
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:27:38 PM
Re: Meditation
@willjordan- I think that's great. I hear many people who practice meditation say that it is different than sitting and thinking. I personally can't tell the difference. Do you see one, and do you think it matters for this? Should we teach everyone how to meditate?
willjordan
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willjordan,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:55:19 PM
Re: Meditation
I do see a difference between mediating and sitting an thinking. It is a matter of focus, in some ways both inwarely and externally. For me there is a spiritual component as well. I am very much an introvert. I gain enery and recharge by myself rather than in the company of others. Not that I don't enjoy the company of others, but if I really need to work something out, I need to do it by myself. This may make mediation more natural to me. I don't think that everyone needs to learn meditation. It can be helpful, but it isn't a universal solution. But learning a few of the techniques may allow folks to keep from going batty when ther eis a low level of external stimulation. will
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:00:12 PM
Re: Meditation
@willjordan- Thanks for the answer. Let me ask you a more focused question since it is part of the article. Should we teach prisoners how to meditate? Do you think that would help them come out of jail healthier?
willjordan
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willjordan,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 3:10:00 PM
Re: Meditation
It certainly wouldn't hurt, but I think that there are a couple of other considerations here. I think that there are far too many people going to prison and/or have mandatory minimum sentences far in excess of their danger to society. I think we need to focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishment; there are far too many prisoners in solitary confinement. If a person is going to get out of prison, they ought to get out in better shape thatn they went in. Otherwise, incarceration just postpones and intesifies the problem. But that is a whole other topic in some ways. I've recently read a couple of articles on the creation of a permanent underclass where any jail time is a life sentence to restricted rights and difficulty to return to society because of social and legal stigma. It's something that bears further study. will
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Moderator
7/11/2014 | 10:09:07 AM
Interesting
Some 75% of the men and 25% of the women actually pressed the button at least once, shocking themselves on purpose. They couldn't sit there for 15 minutes alone with their thoughts, so they broke things up by hurting themselves. Are you sure that is why they did it? Did you ask them? If so do you really believe them? Perhaps the real reason was they wondered if the button would really administer the shock.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:37:22 PM
Re: Interesting
@majenkins- It is possible. But they felt the shock and were told the shock was real. they didn't like the shock. It was entirely unfun.

So I think I'd want to avoid the shock.

That said, you are right to be careful of experiments like these, because some people might feel like they are sheep to just assume that the button was real. If the means of injuring oneself was more obviously dangerous (a mechanical thing like something that pinched or poked so you knew it was real) it could possibly change the results.

The frightening thing is that a lot of the subjects pushed the button MORE than once.
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Moderator
7/11/2014 | 2:41:11 PM
Re: Interesting
More than once is dumb, I don't remember the article saying that. I am with some other folks then gosh learn to relax and just sit there and as RAH once said "Contemplate the which-ness of what".
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:48:18 PM
Re: Interesting
@majenkins- That reminds me of something my wife always says to the children. When we're on long car rides and they say they are bored she says, "cultivate an inner life."

I guess some of us have and some of us haven't but I wonder how you do or don't.
ChrisMurphy
IW Pick
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2014 | 2:43:05 PM
Re: Interesting
15 minutes of downtime, and they didn't just take a nap? I just don't get people. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 2:46:39 PM
Re: Interesting
@Chris- They were required to stay awake. Still, i get what you are saying. It seems like even not actually sleeping but just resting would be welcome to most people in our sleep-deprived society.
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Moderator
7/11/2014 | 4:44:51 PM
I love running marathons...
which means I spend hour upon hour running by myself to train, usually with no music player or nothing but my own thoughts.  Not the same as sitting in solitary, but I still think I can handle doing nothing before shocking myself.

Regardless, major props for a post incorporating David Puddy - love that guy.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/11/2014 | 6:15:37 PM
Re: I love running marathons...
@progman2000- I have to give the Puddy props to our own Rob Preston. I had forgotten the scene. He suggested it. It is a classic, and I owe it to him. I hope you don't think less of me for it. :)
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Strategist
7/12/2014 | 2:48:47 AM
Quiet time

Wow I would love to see if this has changed over time because of our always connected environment. I can sit for 15 minutes and do nothing, it's kind of a mental meditation exercise I like to do. It gives me clarity to move onto tasks in a more organized fashion. I do think that I am unusual however because I know people that cannot sit still or even stand still. Maybe it's a skill we need to teach individuals at a young age, how to entertain themselves with their imagination and how to calm themselves through peaceful meditative thoughts.

PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 5:15:57 PM
Re: Quiet time
I agree.  In some cases, seating quietly is very beneficial.  It allows a person to reflect on their life.  This is a form of meditation.  I think this is what we are losing in world where people are always connected for either work or personal reasons.  Let me take my 15 minute break right now.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 8:10:29 PM
Re: Quiet time

I really did try to sit for the 15mins.    And I am sure I can do it no problem, but all the coffee I had prior to the test made it nearly impossible.    But I agree with the general feeling along the thread - Meditation is where is it at !    The opportunity to close out the noise of society is priceless.  

 

So without too much coffee, finding inner peace is almost easy.  For those who don't practice meditation regularly, then I highly encourage you to try it.  

Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2014 | 8:17:18 PM
Re: Quiet time

 I think this is what we are losing in world where people are always connected for either work or personal reasons.

 

@PedroGonzales   Well said and I could not agree more.  It is sad to see that most do not have enough self awareness to center themselves again.   Ok, I can understand the young probably don't understand this, but there are unfortunately many adults who do not either understand or acknowledge the necessity to be mentally and emotionally centered.  

 

The practice of Meditation aids this of course.   And there are many ways to practice it - but it needs to be practice by many more than actually do.

yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
7/30/2014 | 4:57:01 PM
Re: Quiet time
@impactnow: Most people who are asked to sit still for 15 minutes cannot day dream, whereas we spend at least half an hour of the day sitting still and daydreaming and still we don't get bored. This all has to deal with situational awareness.
dogcat
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dogcat,
User Rank: Guru
7/12/2014 | 4:38:02 PM
I will take the bet. How about an hour
How much do you want to wager?
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
7/12/2014 | 7:10:23 PM
Re: I will take the bet. How about an hour
we are not on betting site :) 
LUFU
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LUFU,
User Rank: Strategist
7/12/2014 | 8:36:02 PM
Say No More
The Seinfeld scene is very telling with Puddy and Elaine on a flight and she couldn't bear that Puddy was just sitting there, not reading, not speaking, not doing anything. It drove Elaine up the wall and caused one of their numerable breakups.

It strikes me that the ability to do nothing is also culturally related. I learned from a Japanese businessman and from experience that Westerners and Japanese are on different wavelengths. In meetings, the Japanese may sit quietly and not say much while the Westerners can't keep themselves from talking. In negotiation situations, the non-Japanese couldn't bear the Japanese non-verbal silence and would greet the lengthy pauses by giving in more than necessary. In this case, whoever spoke up first was the loser.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/15/2014 | 2:19:34 AM
Re: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself
Anoter interesting study (or, study of a study) on the Geekend, Dave! People are expressing some skepticism about the study in the comments, and that's good; that's why we're here. It seems like "studies" are a dime a dozen these days, and they're often shamelessly reposted until you get a case of phone tag where the original intent of the study is lost. The Geekend is a little better, though - we use the study as the starting point for a conversation, not the ending point. On thate note, I agree with everyone's concerns about the electroshock portion of the study. It seems a little loaded - the people knew they were part of a study to see whether they would push the button, so doesn't that kind of stack the odds from the beginning?

I think discussion about social norms, while interesting, inherently puts us in a grey area. As you say, Dave, it's hard to really draw many conclusions from this info without knowing if it would have been true 50 years ago. Likewise, it's hard to draw the line between learned and instinctive behaviors, etc. For example, how can we call people's short attention spans unnatural? If we're the ones who conditioned ourselves to have short attention spans, then wasn't it a natural progression? Questions like that are liable to make your head spin. Still, it's fun food for thought to chew on for a while.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Moderator
7/24/2014 | 2:05:00 PM
Guess not everyone gets meditation
I was really surprised by these results. 10 minutes and people would rather shock themselves? Obviously they didn't get any parents with young kids, where 10 minutes of nothing might be entirely relaxing. While i don't often find the time anymore i used to meditate 15 minutes daily, consisting of a darkened room, no sound if possible and no distractions. It was a good thing, making me more energized and focuses through the day. all those people inthe experiement would benefit from taking a bit of time away from mindless gadget doings and taking a bit of time of mindfulness nothingness.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Moderator
7/30/2014 | 4:55:58 PM
Having the right to say
This unique ability of human mind to craft some form of hurt to make things interesting made me realize that in the corporate sector we see such risks undertaken as well. Most corporate leaders claim they are bored with all their daily activities and therefore they start taking risks, which may hurt the company or may give the company a leading edge.
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